OAE at the Royal Festival Hall review

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Roger Norrington (conductor)

Royal Festival Hall, 28th January 2020

Beethoven – Symphonies Nos 2 and 3

The Tourist has signed up for a lot of Beethoven this year. And already enjoyed many performances from many different ensembles with many different interpretations. Most of the central piano, chamber, string quartet, choral and orchestral repertoire is getting an outing, even some of the lesser known works. LvB has 138 Opus number attributions, (some with multiple parts), but once you strip out the early chamber music, the songs, (where his facility was less assured), some choral misfires, the interminable rewrites of Fidelio and piano ephemera, less than half of these get a regular airing. And that is before the various chamber, piano, miniatures, dances, vocal, choral and so on works not assigned an Opus number (WoO, Anh, Unv, Hess and Bia, to represent the various musicologist’s classifications), as well as fragments, ideas and intentions.

Not much of this, if any, will see the light of day even in this momentous year but the one thing we won’t run short of is the symphonies. (I know, I know. Covid-19 may have something to say about that but what can I do.) What is heartening to see is that the less performed symphonies, though this is a relative call as they are not too hard to find even in non-anniversary years, are cropping up frequently.

The debt to Haydn in No 1 is not concealed but there is already much of Beethoven here, sforzandi accents, tonal shifts and more wind, 2 each of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons. It starts with a musical “joke”, though not a belly laugh to be fair, a series of chords in the “wrong” key, obeys sonata form throughout but chooses to expand and contract sections more wilfully than Papa Haydn and asks for faster tempi than predecessors. It is easy on the ear, definitively Classical but still recognisably Beethoven

A quick word on No 8 which has also not been given its due historically. In F major and relatively short, it is undeniably upbeat, but full of interesting ideas, consistent with the shock, awe and invention of its three predecessors, almost a retrospective before the final symphonic roll of the dice that was to come. The climax comes early in the first movement, the second is a metronomic slow movement played fast, the third is a kind of yokel’s minuet from three decades previous and the rondo finale is as remarkable as anything our man ever wrote.

No 4 is just wildly under-appreciated. From the comic ghostly hover at the opening through the look-at-me bop, complete with wind jam, the first movement is up there with his best, and doesn’t go on too long. The second is a squeezebox, slowed-down rondo, which shows just how much LvB could do with, ostensibly, so little. In the third movement LvB again takes the minuet form, speeds it up into a zig-zaggy scherzo, which thrice wraps around a hesitant trio. The perpetuum mobile finale is a fast, but not too fast, race to the finish line, as “unbuttoned” to use Beethoven’s own phrase as the madcap end of the 7th. I guess the problem is that doesn’t really go in for the deep, thick, heroic stuff of 3 and 5 but there is still something hyper and uneasy through the whole of the symphony, and a lot of ideas.

So to No 2. In the hands of Sir Rog and the OAE. Who played it a few years ago in this very hall, when I was still trying to convert the SO to the joys of LvB. (She famously whipped out a novel on that occasion, snuck-ed into the programme). It impressed then and did so again.

It dates from LvB’s time in Heiligenstadt in 1802, (though the first sketches date from 1800), and premiered in Vienna in 1803. Like the other, lesser even numbered, it just needs a good listen to, though it isn’t, I admit, quite as convincing as 4 and 8. The first movement, post its opening ta-da, exhausts its first theme, the second movement, larghetto, is one of LvB’s longest slow movements, very lovely, but a bit syrupy. The scherzo, is exactly that, a joke, a drunken dance. The finale has some exquisite string writing but doesn’t quite offer enough serious yin to the comedy yang of the preceding movements. In short the whole is a bit too jolly compared to what was to come. Surprising given just how much pain the old boy was in.

As with the Eroica Sir Rog wants us to have a good time, encouraging between movement applause and given he commands the OAE to get a move on, this works for No 2 if less for No 3. This briskness, and Sir Rog’s animated conducting, even from his trademark swivel chair, he is 86 after all, does occasionally mean a loss of focus but it does spread the joy. And whilst the tuned up wind, the absence of vibrato, the quivery brass, the thwack of the timpani, the sheer pace, may now no longer surprise, he and his HIP peers have been at this for near four decades now, it still remind us exactly why No 3 changed the direction of music. Fresh out of the box.

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